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A Walk on the Mild Side

by Eric Boa

Wandsworth: a pavement tableau for people, not pets

The vogue for long walks literally knows no bounds. In the UK, there’s the John Muir Way in Scotland (134 miles), Hadrian’s Wall Trail (83 miles) in northern England, Offa’s Dyke Path (177 miles) on the English/Welsh border and the veritable Pennine Way (268 miles), the first ‘British National Trail’, to name only a few. Waterproof clothing advised, preferably in bright primary colours, along with other useful items, such as sturdy footwear, walking sticks, hat, rucksack and map.

Choose a companion, mark out stops for drinking, eating, sleeping, even wild swimming, if so inclined, and you’re almost ready to head out. You will have of course read up in advance about notable viewpoints, historical features and other features that you will encounter en route, fed by an astonishing body of information and advice on how to make the most of the walk. Websites, apps, maps, guidebooks and social media combine to promise you an enthralling journey. It will be wild.

Now, consider taking a walk which has no name, no particular purpose, no defined features or stopping points and starts, stutters and stops in unusual places. You walk as long as you want to, with or without a companion, and see what happens. I have now completed two such walks, the first from New Malden, an outer London suburb close to Richmond Park, to Battersea Power Station. I was hoping to reach Vauxhall or even Waterloo station, but Luigi, my companion, got sore toes. Still, we managed to walk 19 kms, around 12 miles, in just over four hours.

The second walk was a solo effort, also starting in New Malden, ending at the home of the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley. It was slightly longer, 25 km (15 miles), and took slightly longer at around five hours. It’s not completely true to say that the walks were unplanned, since I had end points in mind, but there were many unpredictable, surprising and rather joyful events on both outings. I played a grand piano on my way to Wisley, popping in to a piano shop in Cobham to see what was in stock. The Dutch salesman gave me his card and I left convinced that even a small grand piano would not fit into our house. And why buy a small grand piano anyway? The clue is in the name; the bigger the piano the better the sound.

Kingston: don't play in the cemetery

Esher, a place I walked through for the first time in the forty-plus years I have lived in Surrey, has a plethora of kitchen design shops. Around five, if my memory is right. It also has an enterprising Dentists’ practice, with an enticing sign on the pavement (below). I pondered how many passers-by had ever taken up the offer to “Try our Amazing Hygienists Today!”. Does anyway have a dental clean on the spur of the moment? The plural form puzzled me later. Or was an apostrophe intended?

As Luigi and I prepared to set out on the first walk, we decided not to go through Wimbledon Common. There was a vague feeling that mingling with houses, shops, churches and other buildings was more in keeping with the spirit of our venture. This didn’t prevent us walking through Wimbledon Park, opposite the enormous complex that is Wimbledon Tennis Club; or the All England Lawn Tennis Ground plc, to use its official name. Seeing the sprawling grounds on television is no substitute for the real thing. You won’t get to see the area of Wimbledon Park next to the courts that is currently being developed into a car park.

Avoiding Wimbledon Common meant we passed a delightful Italian Delicatessen in Wimbledon Village. “They’re Sicilian”, said Luigi. Time to buy lunch, two large and tasty panini that we later ate by the Thames. As we walked around the shop I’d passed many times in the car, Luigi pointed out packets of taralli and other bread-like snacks. An everyday item for everyday folk in Puglia, where he comes from, but more an expensive treat for the folk who shop in Wimbledon Village.

On we went, beyond the tennis courts (eerily quiet – but then what do you do for the other 50 weeks of the years? corporate events, weddings, exhibitions and loads of other stuff, including sale of merchandise). On to part of the Wandle Way, an attempt to provide a safe haven for walkers along the banks of a rather meagre- looking river. The River Wandle feeds into the Thames and has lost the glamour that you might associate with one of Lord Nelson’s favourite fishing spots. It’s more a ditch than a major waterway, squeezed between houses, blocks of flats and roads. The Wandle Way is also a haven for bicyclists and speedy scooters, whose antics in zones designated for pedestrians increasingly mock the term ‘traffic-free’.

We walked past Luigi’s old office. He talked about architectural design, which is what he does, as he analysed different blocks of flats. I pointed out mature birch trees with large galls on the trunks, scabby, swollen areas that look like giant warts. We had already exhausted the topic of spirituality, agreeing that there was little difference between the mysticism of objects, rituals and other things that cults and individuals adhere to, and the systematic structure and operations of organized religions. I missed these meandering musings when I went solo for my second walk. The solitariness of walking through the posh parts of Surrey took my mind off in other directions, from the mundane to the reflective.

Now I see where I went wrong with my second walk. To get to Wisley I had to find a way to walk over two major roads. The M25 is multi-lane highway that circles London. There are no pedestrian crossings or traffic lights, only bridges and underpasses. Wisley is close to one of the junctions on the M25, a major intersection with the A3, another multi-lane highway. I located the bridge over the M25 on my phone and was momentarily thrown by a sign which said “road closed”. It wasn’t. By this time I had left suburban Surrey; no houses and no pavement as I walked along narrow country lanes. Cars sped past anonymously.

There was one surprise awaiting me. I got to see swathes of felled trees, part of a big project to improve traffic flow at the intersection. I said hello to a construction worker on the pedestrian bridge right by Wisley, a structure I have driven under hundreds of time. Cars, trucks and more cars zipped by. It was only when I was on the bridge that I realised there was a bus stop underneath. The RHS is a big employer and not everyone wants– or is able – to come by car.

I’d encourage others to discover the unexpected outcomes of walking without an explicit purpose. It’s a different experience with a companion; time goes faster and you get a different perspective on things. I also enjoyed my solo walk, though things began to pall towards the end. The idea of a mild walk came from hearing a radio talk by Will Self, an author, on Psychogeography. The simplest explanation I can find is exploring interpersonal connections to places and arbitrary routes. The concept was developed in the 1950s by Letterists and Situationists, European groups of thinkers influenced by Marxist and anarchist theory. Guy Debord, a leading member of both groups, talked about the dérive, roughly speaking an urban walk. Good to know but not essential if you just fancy a random walk. Make of it what you will.

Encouraged by our editor, I realised I’ve taken mild walks before I ever heard of Psychogeography. An exploration of the empty spaces and grand buildings of central Tashkent in Uzbekistan (cold and boring) comes to mind. Or rambling through Managua, a capital city (Nicaragua) without a centre and also of meagre interest. Maybe I wasn’t concentrating hard enough on interpersonal connections.

I’m already thinking of the next walk. I quite fancy going on foot to Heathrow airport, or at least in that general direction. It won’t be pretty, though who knows what there’s to see along the route. I can guarantee that the most difficult part of the walk will be finding a toilet. On the way there will be fancy shops - ordinary ones and intriguing ones - people to observe and some to talk to, even if only fleetingly. Maybe a nice cafe to stop by, observing one of the ‘rules’ that I’m going to follow: buy your food on the day. Above all, walk to observe. Meander and explore. Give it a go: take a walk on the mild side.


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